Coco Interview

Pixar's Cultural Revolution: Sketch Artist Ana Ramirez on the Artistry and Ancestry Behind 'Coco'

November 20, 2017Ben MK

As the old saying goes, it takes a village. And even though whoever coined the phrase probably wasn't thinking of the process of making a Pixar movie at the time, that doesn't make the analogy any less apt. After all, Pixar's films are about more than just computing power; it takes the talents and hard work of a plethora of artists and storytellers to bring each of the studio's projects to a worldwide audience.

I caught up with one of Pixar's artists, Ana Ramirez, to talk about the instrumental role she played in bringing Disney Pixar's newest film, Coco, to the big screen, as well as to chat about her own personal connection to the film and what she hopes moviegoers will take away from it.

As a sketch artist on Coco, how involved were you in determining the visual look and feel of the movie?

Ramirez: It was a really fun experience [and] very challenging — we really wanted to try hard to portray Mexico as authentic as possible in this film, so I took a lot of time to do a lot of research. Research was a very important part of this film, so we did a lot of that, and based on all the research and all the research trips that we did with the crew, we were able to gather more reference and just have a better feel of what the holiday is like in Mexico ([the] Day of the Dead) and just Mexico in general, like the traditions and the people and their costumes and everything.

I'm Mexican and I was born and raised in Mexico, but it was still a challenge, because there was so much more to learn, because the country and the culture's just so rich. So I learned a lot about my culture and myself, and it was just a very, very fun project to work on. Just getting to be a part of the art team was just amazing, and I'm really happy to be a part of the few cultural films coming out from Pixar — and, culturally, a lot more to come. I really hope that this opens the door for more cultural films to come in the future.

How big was the team of artists working on this?

Ramirez: Oh, it's hard to say. It varies all the time. I can only speak for the art team, but we were about, maybe, 16 people. And that's when it was at its busiest. There were other times when we were only like 8 or 5 people, so it just depends on at which time. So [in] the beginning it always starts really small, and then it gets really big when it gets busy. And at the very, very end, there was just the production designer and myself just working on [the] title end sequence. So it can be as small as two! Or one! [laughs]

What aspect of the film has been your favorite to work on? Was it costumes, or character design, or set design?

Ramirez: I really, really enjoyed the set design and the costume design aspect of it. For costume design — because I enjoyed learning so much about the indigenous communities throughout Mexico, and because the movie's set specifically in an area in Mexico that's in the south, we just wanted to make sure that it was true-to-life, and that we weren't designing costumes of an indigenous community that maybe was part of the north or lived in the north of Mexico, things like that. So we just really wanted to be specific about everything we designed. That was really cool, and I got to learn a lot about those communities.

And also set design was just really fun, because there's just so much fun color in Mexico. There are all these food stands everywhere, especially in plazas and quaint little towns; everything's just packed with food stands and street decorations, and everything's really colorful. And it's cool because the World of the Dead was inspired by this Spanish colonial town, so it's cool to have the mixture of European architecture with Mexican folk. That was really fun, just learning about the different kinds of architecture that exists in Mexico and drawing it afterwards.

Was that mainly what inspired you when you were drawing — the actual architecture of Mexico? Or were there other inspirations you drew upon when coming up with your designs for the movie?

Ramirez: I think for most of it it was the actual architecture of Mexico, but we did have reference films, of course, that were an inspiration in general for the film. We looked at Macario, which is a great film, and we found a lot of reference there for everything, like lighting and set design. It's a beautiful film.

Also, in the Land of the Dead, the whole city was reminiscent, in a way, of Monsters Inc., in that it was all very busy and there were plenty of things going on. Was that movie an influence in some way?

Ramirez: So, the production designer, Harley Jessup, he worked on Monsters Inc. He did the production design for Ratatouille and James and the Giant Peach as well, so it's very much his kind of vision — his kind of art direction — which is really cool. I really love his taste and sense of design, so I think he made it feel authentic. And I think that's just the feel of a Mexican town really: very busy, almost kind of chaotic, but in a way that's still functional.

There were a lot of tiny details and touches throughout the movie. Speaking of which, were you able to add any fun or personal touches to the film?

Ramirez: Yes! My dad is a shoemaker, so that was a really big surprise, because I didn't know that when I joined the film. And then [the main character] Miguel's family, they're a family of shoemakers. So that was crazy, and I was able to contribute a lot of reference — personal stories and what it's like to grow up in a big family, because as a Mexican person, I have a huge family as well, and the dynamic's very similar. [laughs] We don't live together, but the dynamic's very similar to Miguel's family, with [them] being shoemakers and all, and I myself also wanted to be a musician before I became an artist. There's just so much of me in the film, and I felt like there were so many coincidences. It was meant to be, for me to work on this film.

Now that the movie is ready to be unveiled to moviegoers worldwide, what do you hope viewers will take away from it?

Ramirez: I really, really hope that people enjoy it, because I think it's really important to represent all cultures on the big screen. And I feel like, as a Mexican person, I'm so used to seeing movies that often misrepresent the country and our culture. So I'm really happy that this movie's trying really hard to portray a different view of Mexico — just the beauty of it, the traditions, the people and everything — in a very beautiful way. And, hopefully, this will open doors to other cultural films to come and [for] people to start taking the risks of making them. And also [to] learn more about the culture and [to] just enjoy it in general.

Finally, any advice for aspiring artists hoping to break into the industry?

Ramirez: Yeah! Work really hard, draw from life, and draw from your own experiences as well. Believe in yourself and you can do it! [laughs]

Coco is in theaters everywhere November 22nd.

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